Puppy Pics, Pound Signs and Sad Keanu

When grammar and punctuation go missing.

Smiths Are or Smith Is?

We Smiths have an over-healthy love of the communication arts. Some might even call us word nerds.  

For example, Smith Communication Partners is not named after a person. The word smith means artisan. Like blacksmith, except we’re implying wordsmith

Think about it. Not only did we dig the esoteric meaning of smith, but we also loved the idea of presenting ourselves as communication artisans (word nerds). As an added bonus, we loved the ambiguity created because Smith is also a common surname. 

Other signs that we are word nerds:

  • We share “war stories” about the typos we find in marketing materials.
  • We send each other pictures of bad grammar on billboards and signs.
  • We post photos of beautifully crafted sentences when we find them .
  • We know and talk a lot about fonts (Have you seen the Helvetica documentary?). 
  • Some of us (names withheld to protect the guilty) critique punctuation errors in text messaging.
  • We all bought Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

You get the picture. We’re pretty deep into it. 

It’s Like the Wild West

So, imagine the alternating waves of excitement and terror washing over us for the past few years, as social media and the ubiquity of cell phones have given rise to new and strange ways of communicating and messages that seem to operate without any rules. What’s with all the pound signs? #chaos #grammarpolice  

The sharing of texts, memes, GIFs and emoji, are now the norm. They are not only supplanting informal writing, but also talking. (Say bye-bye to phone calls.) Most troubling to word nerds, almost all these emerging text forms have burst on to the scene without any agreed upon grammars or norms. 

In real time, people (mostly young people) are creating their own language, idioms and meanings using all of the ingredients found on their phones (text, image, audio, video and hypertext). It’s like the Wild West, this free exchange of ideas without any controlling authority. 

Pretty exciting, but can’t we use a comma now and again?

The truth is there are grammars and norms in operation. They just aren’t standardized (yet) and aren’t always visible. In her book, Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch traces the rise of many of these new, implicit grammars. Of note are the various “typographical tone[s] of voice” that can be achieved by using CAPITALIZATION, minimal punctuation, message breaking, alternative meanings to various keyboard signals, and other nifty inventions. 

While new ways of communicating can be exciting and fun, they can also create difficulties for people who expect different norms to be in operation. Commenting on how evolving ways to use a period to end a sentence creates misunderstanding, McCulloch states:

“[A message] from an older relative to a teenager, or a boomer boss to a millennial employee reads differently depending on what you think is neutral.”

Because Internet p. 112

Suddenly, the world is a very confusing place for word nerds, communication consultants and all people who know (and care) about when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon.  

If You Can’t Beat Them

It’s important to remember that these emerging forms of “writing” are taking the place of talking, not formal writing. All of the existing rules of proper English use are still exceedingly important in business, law, government and academia—anywhere precision is important.

So let’s take a joyful and open stance towards these changes. Sending puppy pictures, Sad Keanu memes, and 🤷🏼‍♀️  is new and inventive and wonderfully expressive. 

I say enjoy the ride. 

To make that ride easier, over the next couple of months I will write five articles that examine, explain and extol the virtues of Txt messaging, memes, GIFs, emoji and link-sharing. The point is to learn a little about how they are created, used and understood.  And, maybe, to consider how these informal modes might make their way into a professional’s communication toolbox. 

More Ideas